Blogs > Cliopatria > More on Douthat

Feb 16, 2005 8:30 am

More on Douthat

Timothy Burke posted last Friday about Ross Douthat's critique of Harvard's curriculum in the Atlantic Monthly, which might have been appropriately and sardonically titled,"The Education of Ross Douthat."

Douthat doesn't go as far as Henry Adams; he doesn't refer to himself in the third person. But he might well have quoted Adams, his fellow Harvard alumnus, who made most of Douthat's points in 1918:
For generation after generation, Adamses and Brookses and Boylstons and Gorhams had gone to Harvard College, and although none of them, as far as known, had ever done any good there, or thought himself the better for it, custom, social ties, convenience, and above all, economy, kept each generation in the track. Any other education would have required a serious effort, but no one took Harvard College seriously. All went there because their friends went there, and the College was their ideal of social self-respect.

Harvard College, as far as it educated at all, was a mild and liberal school, which sent young men into the world with all they needed to make respectable citizens, and something of what they wanted to make useful ones. (p. 50)
Now, no one really takes Adams' lack of seriousness about Harvard seriously either. Indeed, Adams spends his entire autobiography complaining about the ill fit between his nineteenth-century education and his twentieth-century experience, but in the process of doing so he does a pretty good job convincing his readers that he's a pretty educated guy, in all senses of the word. Harvard must not have been that bad for Adams. After all, he went back to work there.

But back to Douthat. There has been more discussion of the article at Left2Right, Brad DeLong, and Matthew Yglesias. Douthat speaks back here and here.

Most of these discussions concern the covering laws that Douthat suggests about contemporary philosophy -- that the dearth of metaphysics and morality in philosophy departments has doomed the discipline to popular irrelevance. Several philosophers in the above discussions have bristled. Since this is a history blog, though, I might as well point out that historians make out even more poorly in Douthat's article, what with all their pointless essay questions, microhistory, and, of course, their postmodern sensibilities. (I might respond by invoking Henry Adams too:"In essence incoherent and immoral, history had either to be taught as such -- or falsified. Adams wanted to do neither." Ah, the eternal dilemma of the conscientious history teacher.)

In both the article and one of his blog responses to critics, Douthat takes history and their disciplinary cousins to task for what he calls"the tendency of the humanities to become more scientistic in various ways over the last half-century -- via the dominance of Theory in the English and Literature departments; via the emphasis on primary research, material history, etc. in the History Departments; or more recently, via the rise of rational-choice theory in the realm of political science." This seems to me an odd way of thinking about what it means for the humanities to be"scientistic," and it is especially disorienting that the article dubs this baneful tendency as"postmodern." Emphasizing primary research and adopting rational-choice theory also seem to me horses of very different colors; I'm not sure I see what the tendency that Douthat is identifying is, unless it's the standard complaint that humanistic writing has become more science-like -- jargony and what not.

What I really wanted to point out, however, was Douthat's response to those (like me) who believe he underestimates the crucial role of the student in higher education. His response is that we overestimate that role. I'm inclined to agree (as Burke also seemed to suggest) that a balance has to be struck between administrative facilitation and student self-motivation in order for that mysterious cocktail called"education" to be shaken up. Douthat's complaint about those who place the onus on students reads like this:
I tend to think if you take a bunch of teenagers, however smart they may be, and drop them into a stress-ridden, hypercompetitive school in which the only academic guidance takes the form of a terrible, terrible Core Curriculum, most of them will take the path of least resistance, seek out easy classes and popular, potentially lucrative concentrations (hello, economics!), and generally fail to get the most of their four years. Is this a moral failure on the students' part, and therefore something that the administration and faculty shouldn't be concerned with? DeLong et. al. seem to think so. Their attitude is apparently that if you didn't do a good job picking, without any kind of guidance (I don't know what the advising system was like in DeLong's era, but it's nearly nonexistent now), thirty-two classes out of the hundreds and hundreds of potential offerings that Harvard flings at you -- well, then tough luck, buddy. And good luck at the consulting firm.
It struck me while reading this how uncannily it sounds like a liberal view of government. We know from others of his writings that Douthat doesn't like what he calls"left-liberalism." But his impassioned critique of the university as a passive institution, and his defense of the betrayed student from the charge of"moral failure," sound an awful lot like he's a closet liberal. Try this experiment: go back through the paragraph above, and read it this way:
I tend to think if you take a bunch of [people], however smart they may be, and drop them into a stress-ridden, hypercompetitive [market] ... most of them will take the path of least resistance ... and generally fail to get the most of their [potential]. Is this a moral failure on the [people's] part, and therefore something that the administration and [government] shouldn't be concerned with? DeLong et. al. seem to think so. Their attitude is apparently that if you didn't do a good job picking, without any kind of guidance ... [life options] out of the hundreds and hundreds of potential offerings that [the world] flings at you -- well, then tough luck, buddy. And good luck [on the unemployment line].
Okay, it's a highly selective edit, but it raises this question: Why are so many conservative critics willing to make structural arguments about the failures of"the system" when it comes to higher education, while they sneer at the insistence of liberal critics that"failure" in the school of hard knocks is not knock-down evidence of"moral failure" on the part of people who need help now? Are the rules that apply to universities different from those that apply to all other social institutions?

(Cross-posted at Mode for Caleb.)

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More Comments:

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/16/2005

" It does seem to me that, looked at in this way, what the academic left first kicked to the curb it re-introduced under a different guise."

Probably true. Rabble rousing certainly looks different when you're at the podium.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/16/2005

I've been intrigued by any possible relationship between the objections to _in loco parentis_ and its subsequent decline, on the one hand, and the rise of things like speech codes and the demand for the maintenance of the campus as "safe space" where some students and faculty are protected from offense. It does seem to me that, looked at in this way, what the academic left first kicked to the curb it re-introduced under a different guise.

Caleb McDaniel - 2/16/2005

Line edit in last paragraph of my comment: "pulling knowledge together in a meaningful way ..."

Also, when I refer to "conservative arguments about the university's obligation to students," I should have clarified that I mean the university's putative obligation to provide students with a certain bundle of unified knowledge. I didn't mean to suggest that only conservative critics of the university believe it has an obligation to students. We all believe that; there might simply be some disagreement about what this obligation entails.

Caleb McDaniel - 2/16/2005

Great questions that I certainly don't know all the answers to. I think Tim Burke's earlier post was right to suggest that the choice does not have to be a simple one between a Core Curriculum of Universals and a Supercollider that smashes Particulars together. If as instructors we think more deliberately about how to justify the relevance of our classes and connect them outwardly to other classes and disciplines, we can create a more holistic education that is built from the ground up rather than shaped from the top down by the capstone courses in moral philosophy that used to grace (or curse, depending on your point of view) American colleges.

I think you're right, too, that the Douthat debate is more about what college is for than about social relations in a larger sense. My main point in the last few paragraphs was not to point out hypocrisy. I just sort of wanted to point out the formal similarities between social liberal arguments about the government's caretaking role and conservative arguments about the university's obligations to students. If, as I think you're suggesting, critics like Douthat are calling for a qualified return to the "loco parentis" days of college life, with plenty of guidance at every step of the way, those calls are not dissimilar from parental metaphors for the state.

Incidentally, while I didn't want to take the Henry Adams analogy too far, it's worth pointing out that even in his lifetime, which fell in the transitional period between the old capstone-course curricula and the new German models for universities, Adams lamented the lack of utility and unity in Harvard's curriculum.

Adams wrote, "He never knew whether his colleagues shared his doubts about their own utility. He could not tell his scholars that history glowed with social virtue; the Professor of Chemistry cared not a chemical atom whether society was virtuous or not. Adams could not pretend that mediaval society proved evolution; the Professor of Physics smiled at evolution."

What this indicates (aside from the fact that I love this book) is, first, that the problem of pulling knowledge together in a meaningful one is a problem for the ages, and it seems to have vexed our predecessors in higher education as much as it does the modern university. And second, Adams' allusions to evolution and Social Darwinism point to the possible dangers that always lurk in the idea that all of a university's disciplines should converge towards a core.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/16/2005

Interesting post. There is something of a contradiction between the conservative critique of universities and of society. However, I think this may be less a hypocrisy than another example of the debate over what higher education is.

Once upon a time colleges and universities were supposed to provide moral and intellectual guidance. They were to act in lieu of parents in the final transition to adulthood, useful citizenry, intellectual prowess.

I'm not sure how successful colleges ever were at this but a narrow and largely common curriculum and rules on behavior ourside class (example, locking people in the dorms at 10 pm) were the results.

As colleges became universities in the U.S., the idea of a common curriculum weakened at most places. Let's put it this way. The college was a restaurant. The university a food court. Then the students turned the food court into a cafeteria by asking why they couldn't have fries with that lasagne.

More or less simulatneously, students rebelled against what seemed the "loco" in loco parentis. As the rules weakened they got more absurd. My favorite example, from my freshman days, was having a curfew for girls in the dorm while letting the guys roam in the dark.

The results since then have been interesting. There has actually been a great deal of creativity in universities in dealing with these circumstances, but at most the ideal of a core curriculum, a core of knowledge that should be common to all, has declined. Many lament that.

I think right now there is considerable confusion as to what universities should do. Should they dispense knowledge and skills on demand or actually try to guide development? Should they champion a core curriculum, a goal vaguely similar to the Quest for the New Narrative, or should they succumb to the particular and hope that the collision of different disciplines in the individual student's mind will, in and of itself, make a university education more than the sum of its parts?